Emma Ashmere

writer | author | novelist

Category: On Writing

Chronic Uncertainty: Books I Wish I’d Had When (Nearly) Everything Changed

 

Today I’m celebrating the international day of people with disability 2020 in all its pride and diversity by recommending a few wonderful books written by people with lived experience of disability and chronic illness. The term in this post’s heading ‘chronic uncertainty’ is borrowed from Jacinta Parson’s excellent new memoir Unseen, mentioned below.

It’s been 16 years since my own health changed and I began losing the ability to walk unassisted, back in 2004. But it wasn’t until 2010 that I found a book that told me I was not alone.

That book was the memoir The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by US author Elisabeth Tova Bailey.

THE SOUND OF A WILD SNAIL EATING by Elisabeth Tova Bailey

Struck down by a virus while travelling, Elisabeth Tova Bailey instantly becomes a ‘horizontal person’. Her world shrinks to the size of a terrarium of potted violets next to her bed, a gift from a friend. But then she hears a sound. A snail is munching through those violets.

Her diminished view opens up into the broader natural world of snails, gastropods, connecting with scientists and readers alike. The image which resonated with me the most was her idea of while so many of us exist in isolation, we are like thousands of lights burning all over the world.

In 2010, I wrote a review of this book for a local newspaper – a job I was offered which changed my life. Every month I was paid $20 per 400 word review and allowed to keep the book – important because I could no longer afford to buy books. This was a tiny but huge step in rediscovering my fragmented writer self, piecing together a purpose, and a regular pattern to my month.

 

HOTEL WORLD by Ali Smith

Scottish author Ali Smith is one of my all time favourite writers. Best known for her prize-winning brilliantly political, witty and structurally ingenious books, she’s also had Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/ME. I didn’t know this until I read the opening lines of the chapter ‘Future Conditional’ in her 2001 Booker shortlisted novel Hotel World – lines which could only be written by one who know how it is:

About you – continued…

If you need help filling out this form, or any part of it, phone…

Tell us about yourself.

Well. I am a nice person.

The protagonist is trying to explain to the government welfare officers why she can no longer do her job at a hotel. Her head feels ‘like a bison’, and she exists between worlds, lost in her room at her mother’s house, not fitting into anyone’s definitions, including her own. She hesitates over the welfare application form. Will she write ‘I am a nice person’ or will she cross out the word ‘nice’ and replace it with ‘sick’? She’ll do it in a minute, except she can’t remember how many minutes there are in an hour, how many hours in a day… etc.

 

SO LUCKY by Nicola Griffith

UK-born writer Nicola Griffith’s 2018 book So Lucky packs a punch. The protagonist Mara works at a not-for profit LGBTQIA+ health support organization. On the very day her wife walks out of their marriage, Mara feels a weird sensation in her leg. She’s diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS), and so begins her reckoning with an ableist world – including her own office colleagues who can’t see the need to install a ramp – and her own changing sense of self. Here’s my review of So Lucky on Newtown Review of Books.  

Nicola’s best known book is the much-acclaimed historical novel Hild set in the Dark ages. Apparently there’s another novel on the way. Nicola’s blog posts ‘Lame is so Gay: A Rant’ and ‘Coming Out as a Cripple’ and her work on own voices is essential reading for any writer or reader who might assume they know what living with a disability is like. Highly recommended.

(Thanks to Nicola Griffith’s help, I finally wrote about my health, publishing the short story ‘Standing Up Lying Down’ in Overland, based on my own experiences back in the early 2000s trying to discover why I couldn’t walk.)

New Books

This year there’s been a crop of excellent Australian books – books I wish had been around when I was navigating the health maze.

SHOW ME WHERE IT HURTS by Kylie Maslen

Kylie Maslen’s memoir ‘Show Me Where It Hurts: Living With Invisible Illness’ peels back the layers of being young and working through multiple health problems, and the labyrinthine process of trying to find out what is going on. Eventually the author learns she has endometriosis, and bi-polar. She has so much to juggle here, including the changes and losses of identity, work, income, and a presumed future. There’s also the beautiful interweaving of the things that get her through – including Beyonce.

The line in this book which resonated with me the most was about the author finally finding a diagnosis and how that offers her a chance to connect with others.

 

 UNSEEN by Jacinta Parsons

Broadcaster Jacinta Parson’s new memoir ‘Unseen’ details her rocky path through the medical and social world, and the many challenging physical difficulties of managing Crohns Disease. There is much to unpack here, including the history and politics of women’s bodies, the need to be listened to and believed, the tensions between independence and reliance on others, and making a new life in work and with family.

The zinger is her comment about being diagnosed with a chronic condition is like being diagnosed with ‘chronic uncertainty.

In the To Be Read Pile

After tuning in to the recent Politics of Health session run by the Feminist Writers Festival, I’m looking forward to reading Katerina Bryant’s new memoir Hysteria, about living with a rare form of epilepsy and the history of pathologising women.

 

 

Books Coming Soon

Growing Up Disabled In Australia will be published by Black Inc in February 2021. Edited by appearance activist, writer, and speaker Carly Findlay, this is latest in the Growing Up series, and showcases over 40 pieces of writing from emerging and established writers.

‘One in five Australians has a disability. And disability presents itself in many ways. Yet disabled people are still underrepresented in the media and in literature.’

I’m also looking forward to Anna Spargo Ryan’s new memoir A Kind of Magic (Picador) July 2021, which was at the centre of a heated publishers’ auction.

 

More Favourites

There are so many other excellent books on disability and chronic illness. They’ll continue to resonate and change lives because of their authors’ honest and generous insights into living in a world that does not always respect, value, accomodate, or adapt to those of us deemed as ‘different’.

 

Favourites include: Jo Case’s wonderful memoir Boomer and Me: A Memoir of Motherhood and Asperger’s, the ground-breaking Say Hello by Carly Findlay,  and Jessica White’s hybrid memoir on deafness Hearing Maud: A Journey Through Voice – which has just been shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Award.

 

Many things need to change for everyone living with a disability and chronic illness, whatever our particular needs, aims, and situations.

Perhaps now that millions more people have had a taste of what it’s like to live with sudden restrictions, multiple losses, and chronic uncertainty – including the emergence of Chronic Fatigue-like post-COVID ‘long haul’ conditions –  there’ll be more understanding for those of us who live with versions of these limitations every night and day, regardless of whether COVID is there or not.

These books will help.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A note about me:

Here’s a photo of me in 2006 in my Melbourne lounge-room – ready to submit my PhD. After I began losing the ability to walk in the early 2000s, I had to leave my full time job. For 10 months I worked for 20 minutes on some days to finish my thesis and PhD novel. These four PhD tomes were too heavy for me to deliver in person – you can’t carry much when you use a walking stick. By then, I could no longer drive or take the bus because of loss of balance. The tram was better, but the tram stop was too far away. A friend drove me to the university, but we weren’t allowed to park in the Disabled parking because I didn’t have a permit, which wasn’t possible to arrange by phone or online. We managed to persuade a security guard to let us park briefly by a door. The lifts to the English Dept were actually working, and we moved slowly along endless corridors until we came to one of my two wonderful supervisors’ offices, and celebrated the moment with tea and cake. Since then, I’ve regained the ability to walk unassisted, and continue to live with several health conditions including Chronic Fatigue/ME.

Emma Ashmere was born in Adelaide, South Australia on Kaurna land. Her new short story collection DREAMS THEY FORGOT is published by Wakefield Press. Her stories have been widely published including in the AgeGriffith ReviewOverlandReview of Australian FictionSleepers AlmanacEtchingsSpineless Wonders#8WordStoryNGVmagazine, and the Commonwealth Writers literary magazine, adda. She has been shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Writers Short Story Award, 2019 Newcastle Short Story Award, 2018 Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize, and the 2001 Age Short Story Competition; and longlisted for the 2020 Big Issue Fiction Edition, and the 2020 Heroines Prize, with another story forthcoming in the NZ/Aust Scorchers climate change anthology. Her critically acclaimed debut novel, The Floating Garden, was shortlisted for the Small Press Network Book of the Year 2016. See more of Emma’s posts about writing here.

 

Dreams They Forgot – New Short Story Collection Out Today!

DREAMS THEY FORGOT is out today! Thanks to my publishers Wakefield Press, twenty-three of my stories have been put together in one beautifully designed book.

Dreams They Forgot cover.12 LS.indd

DREAMS THEY FORGOT  is available in paperback and e-book, and is listed on the Sydney Morning Herald’s Books to Read in 2020 and Readings Bookshop Books to Get Excited About and 100 Great Reads by Australian Women 2020: “This debut collection of beautiful short stories spans twenty years of the author’s writing life, bringing together tales of love, loss and feeling out of place.” Read more about it here.

“Ashmere’s prose is precise, almost elusive, reading at times like poetry.” ADAM FORD, July 2020,  BOOKS&PUBLISHING. 

About DREAMS THEY FORGOT

Two sisters await the tidal wave predicted for 1970s Adelaide after Premier Don Dunstan decriminalises homosexuality. An interstate family drive is complicated by the father’s memory of sighting UFOs. Two women drive from Melbourne to Sydney to see the Harbour Bridge before it’s finished. An isolated family tries to weather climate change as the Doomsday Clock ticks.

Emma Ashmere’s stories explore illusion, deception and acts of quiet rebellion. Diverse characters travel high and low roads through time and place – from a grand 1860s Adelaide music hall to a dilapidated London squat, from a modern Melbourne hospital to the 1950s Maralinga test site, to the 1990s diamond mines of Borneo.

Undercut with longing and unbelonging, absurdity and tragedy, thwarted plans and fortuitous serendipity, each story offers glimpses into the dreams, limitations, gains and losses of fragmented families, loners and lovers, survivors and misfits, as they piece together a place for themselves in the imperfect mosaic of the natural and unnatural world.

Praise for DREAMS THEY FORGOT

“Emma Ashmere’s characters are luminescent. These stories drew me into people and worlds so vivid they practically lived on the page.”  — ANNA SPARGO-RYAN, author of The Gulf, and The Paper House.

‘Ashmere’s writing is full of quick insights and telling details. These stories move effortlessly through place and time, entering lives on the point of transgression. It’s an absolute pleasure to travel with them.’ — JENNIFER MILLS, author of Dyschronia, The Rest is Weight, and The Diamond Anchor. 

‘Stories of extraordinary range and depth. Deeply engaging and satisfying.’ — PADDY O’REILLY, author of Peripheral Vision, The End of the World, and The Wonders.

‘Ashmere’s prose is precise, almost elusive, reading at times like poetry. It drills down into certain details while leaving others out entirely. This invites the reader to complete the picture by tying together the story elements that Ashmere has chosen to share…The deft description, compelling emotion and insightful observations… will appeal to readers of feminist fiction and Australian realism, in particular fans of Dymphna Cusack or Fiona McGregor.’ — ADAM FORD, BOOKS&PUBLISHING, July 15 2020.   (Read the full review here.)

“The stories in this strong and varied collection range across urban and rural Australia and beyond, to such touchstones of Australian travel as Bali and London, and to more exotic settings such as Borneo and regional France. Emma Ashmere’s stories are often impressionistic, never laboriously chewing on their material and trusting the intelligence of the reader to join the dots and grasp the underlying feeling. There are some excellent stories about family life, especially those told from the point of view of a semi-comprehending and bemused child or adolescent. But Ashmere’s greatest strength is in her stories of the historical past, especially in Australia. These stories acknowledge the limits of what is knowable to contemporary readers, evoking instead the unrecoverable strangeness and mystery of the past.” — KERRYN GOLDSWORTHY, SYDNEY MORNING HERALD/AGE, 5 Sep 2020.

“Ashmere moves skillfully and seamlessly between eras and places… this variety is also a strength, making each story feel different from those surrounding it…  a thoughtful meditation on the things that can hold you down, and the different ways through.” ELIZABETH FLUX, THE SATURDAY PAPER, 12 Sept 2020.

“These short stories have the compressed clarity of diamonds. From somewhere deep, Ashmere brings these small stories to the surface and sets to crafting them. Every angle and facet is laser cut and polished to perfection. Turn them slowly in your hands. Be dazzled by the light that glances and bounces off their surfaces and be drawn to the shadows that lie within.” JENNY BIRD, BYRON WRITERS FESTIVAL, Sept-Oct 2020 NORTHERLY.

“A short story collection can have much in common with a collection of poetry, where each story pivots on attention to something particular and arresting – an image, a memory, the encounters with strangeness or beauty that can occur in a life. Individual stories build delicately towards such a moment, then fall away quickly, willing a reader to engage with feeling and suggestion rather than the comprehensiveness of narrative…. Dreams They Forgot is subtle and evocative in this way; her stories move both on internal trajectories of revelation and in relation to each other, incrementally building a richly nuanced fabric of story, character, and pinpoints of life experience.” ROSE LUCAS, AUSTRALIAN BOOK REVIEW, 29 Nov 2020.

“Generally, an author’s work improves with time, but all twenty-three stories in Dreams They Forgot are of equal quality. In some collections, stories can blur together, but the diverse locations and historical periods utilised in these stories make each piece memorable.” ANNIE CONDON, READINGS MONTHLY, Sept 2020.

“This is an exquisite collection of short stories. Many have a filmic quality as Ashmere introduces a scene and moves like a camera would, resting on an object or a person, and then revealing subtle nuances in gestures or words as we are led further in. The language has the expressiveness of poetry, creating pictures and interactions, leading into stories that leave us pondering long afterwards…. the stories can be read and enjoyed time and again. Highly recommended.” HELEN EDDY, READPLUS, 17 Nov 2020.

“Emma Ashmere’s short story collection, Dreams They Forgot, is creatively atmospheric, a series of ‘slice of life’ vignettes set in a variety of eras with a mostly feminist leaning. Emma writes with sublime texture, so much simmering beneath the surface. ” THERESA SMITH, THERESA SMITH WRITES, 25 Sep 2020.

“Ashmere has curated this collection in a way which makes it read almost like a novel… Many characters seem to be echoes of each other (or maybe the same person?)… Her prose sits lightly on the page, remaining poetic without forgoing narrative drive. Like a caricaturist, she can evoke a full person with just a few strokes of the pen… If you are yet to discover the short story, then this collection might just persuade you. And if you are already a convert, then Ashmere will no doubt delight and engage.” TRACEY KORSTEN, GLAM ADELAIDE, 25 Nov 2020.

The COVER

The photograph ‘Lynne and Carol, 1962’ is by the late Melbourne photographer Sue Ford.  See more of her stunning work archived here.  My thanks to the estate of Sue Ford for kindly granting permission to use her work.

Behind The Book

Q&A with the Feminist Writers Festival about writing Dreams They Forgot.

‘Written on Water’ published in Overland about writing the story ‘The Second Wave’ about the 1976 ‘tidal wave’ predicted to wipe out ‘the sinners’ of Adelaide.

‘What I’m Reading’ on reading Ali Smith’s new novel ‘Summer’ is on Meanjin’s blog.

Catch A Passing Thought’ on writing short stories and Dreams They Forgot.

Author Talk with Theresa Smith Writes.

Chatting to Pamela Cook and Kel Butler on the W4W podcast.

Hear Emma read her story ‘The Sketchers’ inspired by the art of Grace Cossington Smith and commissioned by the National Gallery of Victoria’s NGVmagazine.

 

Events

Join authors Pip Williams, Victoria Purman and Emma Ashmere for Down the Rabbit Hole: Talking History hosted by History South Australia 20th April 5.30pm (Adelaide time). Free zoom.

Launch with Nikki Anderson for Feast LGBTQI Festival 2020.

Thurs 24 Sept 6.30pm (Melbourne time): ” Women Who Break The Rules” Online Event Readings Bookshop. Join Emma Ashmere (Dreams They Forgot) and Laura Elvery (Ordinary Matter) talking to publisher/editor Jo Case about their new short story collections. Free zoom event – but you need to register.

Where To Buy

Find DREAMS THEY FORGOT (RRP AUD $24.95) at your local bookshop or online:

Wakefield Press (Adelaide)

Abbey’s Bookshop (Sydney)

Avid Reader (Brisbane)

Bookroom at Byron (Northern NSW)

Booktopia (Online)

Gleebooks (Sydney)

Readings (Melbourne)

Imprints Bookshop (Adelaide)

Jeffrey’s Books (Melbourne)

Lismore Book Warehouse (Northern NSW)

Matilda Bookshop (Adelaide Hills)

National Library (Canberra)

Ravens Parlour (Barossa Valley)

Riverbend Books (Brisbane)

Wheelers Books (Online)

Dymocks Books (Online)

*Also e-book available. Please note – the RRP is AUD$24.95. Prices vary on Book Depository,  Fishpond,  Amazon etc.*

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See more posts about  reading and writing short fictions and creating a short story collection.

About The Author

Emma Ashmere was born in Adelaide, South Australia. Her new short story collection DREAMS THEY FORGOT is published by Wakefield Press, and follows her critically acclaimed debut novel, The Floating Garden which was shortlisted for the Small Press Network MUBA/Book of the Year 2016. Her stories have been widely published including in the AgeGriffith ReviewOverlandReview of Australian FictionSleepers AlmanacEtchingsSpineless Wonders#8WordStoryNGVmagazine, and the Commonwealth Writers literary magazine, adda. She was shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Writers Short Story Award, 2019 Newcastle Short Story Award, 2018 Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize, and the 2001 Age Short Story Competition; and longlisted for the 2020 Big Issue Fiction Edition, and the 2020 Heroines Prize, with another in the NZ/Aust Scorchers climate change anthology.

Crafting a Short Story Collection

My new short story collection Dreams They Forgot is out now. Here’s an article about navigating the advice – and counter-advice – on building a house of short fiction.

Much has been said about short stories – as a form. They’re the literary equivalent of practising your scales, limbering up for the novel symphony. Publishers avoid them. Yet continue to publish them. Nobody reads them. Except they do. They’re back in fashion. They never went away. As Jane Rawson puts it ‘the short story is both on hiatus and in the prime of its life.’

When I began thinking about creating a collection, there was plenty of ‘how to’ advice about writing short stories and flash fictions but far less about crafting a compelling whole from various scraps. Maybe because it’s as simple as plonking them into one long document.

Not quite.

Reading like a reader

Herding all my stories into one file was revelatory. I tried to sit on the other side of the desk and read them as a reader – rather than the author. One thing leapt out: repetition of ideas, issues, images – even phrases. Nobody had noticed these little obsessions when I’d farmed them out to different places over the years.

I cut several stories. But how best to tend to the keepers?

Mix tapes, zoos, share houses

Nathan Scott Macnamara compares organising a collection to ‘sequencing an album’ or mixed cassette tape, striking ‘a balance between familiarity and change’ and ‘fulfilling the reader’s desires, while also challenging them.’

Randall Jarrell thinks it’s like ‘starting a zoo in your closet.’ The giraffe takes up all the space. As Valerie Trueblood quips, it doesn’t take long to identify which one is the giraffe.

I started to think of my collection as more like a share-house peopled by a mix of timid, loud, pedantic, erratic, reliable, long-termer tenants and fly-by-nighters. The allocation of rooms was paramount.

To theme or not

Some bind their collections to a distinct theme. When it comes to organizing a linked collection, chronology may have already done the job.

It’s been said themed collections – or ‘almost-novels’ – are easier to sell. Perhaps because continuity of characters/time/events may promise fewer gear-changes for the reader.

Set in a seaside village, Ursula Le Guin’s Searoad is bound by place and divided by intergenerational feuds.

Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, also in a seaside town, showcases an ensemble of protagonists. But Olive is the star, so too in the sequel Olive, Again.

Ellen Van Neerven’s Heat and Light is hived into four parts, a hybrid, blurring multiple realities.

Toni Jordan’s Nine Days interlocks one-day-in-a-life of characters through time.

Apparently Nam Le’s award-winning The Boat was never marketed as a collection. Are these are novels, or collections? Or are they carving out space in between?

 Order in the house of short fiction

If your collection is not overtly themed – the question becomes which stories where? It seems logical to put the published pieces or prize-winners first, or the ones already edited by professionals. But suddenly the frame and the context have changed. Now there are many voices speaking from differently-decorated rooms, some of which will have porous walls. Others boast large windows with views to the gardens, as opposed to broom cupboard-sized affairs overlooking the bus depot.

So, who’s on first?

Macnamara says the opening story must do two things: ‘establish the writer’s authority’ and ‘prepare the reader’ for what’s to follow.

In Paddy O’Reilly’s ‘Speak to Me’ a quasi-alien whooshes into a fantasy writer’s backyard. The reader has been warned from page one – uncertainty abounds.

Amanda O’Callaghan’s ‘The Widow’s Snow’ invites us into a middle-aged woman’s thoughts during a protracted date. Ambiguity, trust, snap decisions and death, course through the book.

Josephine Rowe’s ‘Brisbane’ begins with ‘and’, pulling us in for the ride in Tarcutta Wake and addressing us mid-sentence, aka in media res.

Flannery O’Connor’s ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’ sets up the skittles with the opening sentence: ‘The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida.’ She does. And motors towards a murderer.

However, Daniyal Mueenuddin believes the ‘brightest’ story will entice the reader in. Others plump for the ‘best’ piece with the ‘widest’ appeal.

Find the shape

Matthew Fox offers ‘shapes’ for building collections eg mosaic and hourglass. There’s also the ‘tent pole’ – planting stronger pieces a few pages apart to hold the whole thing up.

As for stories of differing length, opinion seems divided about where to put longer stories (aka ‘the giraffes’). Weight it at the end, like Nam Le’s novella in The Boat, or satisfy early with a hearty appetizer. Flash fictions might flit about the equatorial centre. Recurring characters can inhabit adjoining rooms and whisper through the key holes. If there’s a title story, it may settle wherever it pleases.

The last word

For Macnamara, the last story should ‘make emotional sense of everything that’s come before’ and ‘wrap things up.’ Fox says they’re an opportunity to ‘open up to the world.’ The final page should be like the final page of all your stories. Equally resolved – or nebulous.

 Pitching to a publisher

Any decent proposal takes time and effort. Tease out idiosyncratic themes as well as the universal. Highlight any unusual angles, settings, characters, events.

When it comes to writing a synopsis, there’s plenty of advice about novel synopses, but there wasn’t much online about collections. I asked other writers.

Put your characters up front, one suggested. X does Y in Z.

I read a range of collections – recently published, classics – and scoured their blurbs and reviews, noting which stories were singled out, and the adjectives used ie gothic, gritty, cerebral, mythical, fierce, achingly real.

Before I sent out my collection, I rewrote all the stories, old, new, published, unpublished, long, short. If some were written for a themed competition or journal, I checked whether they still made sense transplanted in their new terrain.

I moved them all about many times in the hope they’d pique – and maintain the interest of a publisher – all the while knowing any potential editor would have their own ideas and strategies about what should go where – and which stories should stay or go.

Finally, I spackled together a log-line, wrote a long synopsis (one sentence per story), a short synopsis (a phrase) – and submitted both.

Rejection

Rejection is part of a writer’s job. There are more writing competitions now – and more writers. Fewer journals – and fewer publishers. Kim Liao famously aimed for 100 rejections a year.

Useful – or prohibitively expensive? Galvanising or soul-crumbling? Kim Liao later revisited her idea in her article about ‘creative failure’. It’s worth reading both.

I tend to send out my most polished pieces to the ‘right place’. By ‘polished’ I mean I edit, edit, edit. Or as the submission guidelines for Griffith Review state: ‘Good fiction writing stands out immediately – polish, proofread and repeat.’

By ‘sending to the right place’, I mean somewhere interested in my kind of work. The only way to discover this is by researching, reading, and subscribing to publications, and learning more about their editors and authors.

Just like rejection, research is also part of a writer’s remit.

Who knows if rejection gets any easier?

Perhaps it’s what you do with them that counts. Early in my writing life a lecturer said she dealt with rejection by ‘crying for a day – then getting back to it.’

Natalie Goldberg learnt something similar from her Zen teacher in her famous handbook Writing Down the Bones: if you finish writing a book, excellent. Now, start another.

Whenever one of my stories gets a ‘no’, I’ll either pull the story apart, try another polish, or wait until a themed journal or competition seems a better fit.

The ‘good rejection’ is when an editor takes the time to send a comment along with the no thanks. Their notes might be a critique or an encouragement. Either way I thank them, and ruminate on what they’ve suggested. It might not resonate immediately, but sometimes it’s enough to spark a rethink or an overhaul – or to keep me plugging away.

Some recalibrated stories are eventually picked up. Others – never.

I keep various incarnations on files by year, flick through them occasionally, excise the odd sentence or idea, cut false leads, and see if something new emerges.

The best story on rejection closes out Maxine Beneba Clarke’s award-winning collection Foreign Soil.

Allegedly semi-biographical – the protagonist in ‘The Suki-yaki Book Club’ is a struggling writer scratching out a living in her cramped apartment next to a railway track. She amasses her growing stash of rejection slips as ‘literary armour’ against a world she’s been told is not ready for her kind of work. But as Emily Laidlaw points out in her reading notes on Foreign Soil, that this book exists at all proves they were wrong.

Success

So if your collection finally gets the nod – fantastic. You’re one of the lucky ones who’s persisted. You’ve found a publisher who ‘gets’ your work and is willing to invest time, money, and energy into editing, improving, and promoting it.

But what to say when usually omnivorous readers claim they never read short stories? Never? All short stories? Not even by authors they already admire – Margaret Atwood, Emma Donoghue, Ali Smith, Hilary Mantel, George Saunders, Gail Jones, Zadie Smith?

Isn’t that a bit like saying you don’t like music?

Perhaps you’ll try to persuade them and say short stories are perfect for our busy lives – to dive into during the daily commute, to flick through while the pasta boils, or as a welcome distraction in the waiting room.

Or perhaps you’ll smile at your new book clutched in their hands – hoping its contents will surprise, illuminate, entertain, provoke, amuse, engage – and they’ll become so intrigued by your glimpses into your strangely familiar tenants’ minds and worlds – they’ll forget about the type of house you’ve built for them to share.

***

Emma Ashmere’s new short story collection DREAMS THEY FORGOT is published by Wakefield Press. Her stories have been widely published including in the AgeGriffith ReviewOverlandReview of Australian Fiction, Sleepers Almanac, Short Australian Stories, #8WordStory, NGVmagazine, and the Commonwealth Writers literary magazine, adda. She was shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Writers Short Story Prize, 2019 Newcastle Short Story Award, 2018 Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize, and the 2001 Age Short Story Competition; and longlisted for the 2020 Big Issue Fiction Edition, and the 2020 Heroines Prize, with another story forthcoming in the NZ/Aust Scorchers climate change anthology. Her critically acclaimed debut novel, THE FLOATING GARDEN was shortlisted for the Small Press Network Book of the Year 2016. Read more of her posts re short and long stories here.

A version of this article first appeared in the Bryon Writers Festival magazine Northerly March 2020.

Commonwealth Short Story Prize shortlist: When a story arrives

The Queens Theatre Adelaide, 1992, photo by Delma Corazon.

My short story ‘Nightfall’ has just been published on adda, the online literary magazine for the Commonwealth Foundation. The story was shortlisted for the Pacific region of the 2019 Commonwealth Writers Short Story Prize.

‘Nightfall’ is set in 1800s Adelaide and features the Prado Music Hall at the old Queens Theatre. Apparently it’s the oldest theatre in mainland Australia.

I was actually writing something else when the voice of the protagonist arrived. I scribbled it down, submitted it to a few places, had no luck, cut it by a third, thought why not, and sent it into the 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize – and was stunned to hear many months later it was shortlisted.

Since then, my short story collection Dreams They Forgot has been picked up by Wakefield Press and will be published in September 2020. ‘Nightfall’ will be in the collection.

My thanks to all involved with the Prize, and the Commonwealth Foundation.

Thanks also to Delma Corazon giving permission to use her photo.

The 2020 Commonwealth Short Story Prize closes on 1 November 2019. Entry is free, there’s a diverse panel of judges, and you can submit in a number of languages.

Best of luck!

Emma Ashmere’s new short story collection DREAMS THEY FORGOT is published by Wakefield Press. Her stories have been widely published including in the AgeGriffith ReviewOverlandReview of Australian Fiction, Sleepers Almanac, Short Australian Stories, #8WordStory, NGVmagazine, and the Commonwealth Writers literary magazine, adda. She was shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Writers Short Story Prize, 2019 Newcastle Short Story Award, 2018 Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize, and the 2001 Age Short Story Competition; and longlisted for the 2020 Big Issue Fiction Edition, and the 2020 Heroines Prize, with another story forthcoming in the NZ/Aust Scorchers climate change anthology. Her critically acclaimed debut novel, THE FLOATING GARDEN was shortlisted for the Small Press Network MUBA prize 2016. Read more of her posts re short and long stories here.

The Bookshelf: Book Reviewing on Radio

I’ve done a bit of book reviewing in the past – in print – but it’s another thing to talk about books on the radio. Being a bit of an avoider of public speaking in the past – this adds another layer. But I do love talking about books.

the bookshelf jun 2019

So it was wonderful to be invited onto Radio National’s weekly fiction program The Bookshelf as one of the reviewers talking about novels with the two Bookshelf hosts Kate Evans and Cassie McCullough. Somehow they manage to put everyone at ease, whether they’re in the studio or calling in from elsewhere – while deftly and wittily dissecting the plot, setting, imagery, psychology of the characters, and the structure and politics at work in that week’s book selection. I kept my trusty reviewing notes on hand – and off we went.

The program will be broadcast at midday today and is also online. There is a fantastic interview with Scottish author Damien Barr, plus links to past programs and podcast extras. A great resource for readers and writers alike.

Emma Ashmere’s new short story collection DREAMS THEY FORGOT is published by Wakefield Press. Her stories have been widely published including in the AgeGriffith ReviewOverlandReview of Australian Fiction, Sleepers Almanac, Short Australian Stories, #8WordStory, NGVmagazine, and the Commonwealth Writers literary magazine, adda. She was shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Writers Short Story Prize, 2019 Newcastle Short Story Award, 2018 Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize, and the 2001 Age Short Story Competition; and longlisted for the 2020 Big Issue Fiction Edition, and the 2020 Heroines Prize, with another story forthcoming in the NZ/Aust Scorchers climate change anthology. Her critically acclaimed debut novel, THE FLOATING GARDEN was shortlisted for the Small Press Network MUBA prize 2016. Read more of her posts re short and long stories here.

 

Short & Sharp: Flash Fiction Competitions

fbflashfictioncompblogjun2018Yesterday in Byron Bay, the wild surf crashed and the winter sun flickered. In an upstairs room off main street, a dozen or so keen writers hunched over their notepads writing Flash Fiction. The workshop was timed to coincide with the inaugural Byron Flash Fiction Competition – now open across Australia.

More Flash Fiction opportunities are bobbing up all the time. Some are morphing into multi-platform affairs: animation, sound, postcards, dance etc. But what makes an editor or competition judge decide a piece is ‘good enough’?

In previous posts I’ve mentioned strategies for writing memorable short stories. In my post on microlit there’s a link to David Gaffney’s tips on writing Flash Fiction published in The Guardian. Gaffney has since revisited this. Apparently these ideas have ‘followed him around.’  See also Claire Fuller’s suggestions.

I’ve been sending work to journals and competitions for 20 years. Some stories have been picked up. Most are not. The main thing is to keep going. As Natalie Goldberg says in her classic how-to book Writing Down the Bones – when you finish a piece of writing – and start another.

Writing short isn’t easy. Sometimes the real story only emerges as you hack away the extraneous. Cut too much and the story withers. The great thing is you can go back to a piece years later, change a lazy word, or add a different title. Sometimes you have to take out the fire-bellows to coax a new spark in a piece that’s been slouching around your ‘rejected/needs edit’ file. It’s all about decision and precision. As New Yorker creative-nonfiction writer John McPhee says: ‘Writing is selection… You select what goes in and decide what stays out.’

Some competitions or journals call for a particular theme. With a bit of renovating a dormant story might fit. It might even catch the judge’s or editor’s eye. But once it’s sent, it’s out of your hands. As Priscilla Long says in her book The Portable Mentor – make your work as good as it can be. We only have an allotted amount of writing/living time. So send out your best.

It’s heartening to find some very short fictions tucked away in recent short story collection. Laura Elvery’s ‘Man about a Moon’ appears in her new book Trick of the Light (UQP). Roanna Gonsalves’ NSW Premier Literary Award-winning collection The Permanent Resident (UWAP) includes the short piece ‘First Person’. Mixing up short and longer stories isn’t new. Virginia Woolf’s twin shape-shifting meditations on colour ‘Blue and Green’ were published in 1921. See also Carys Davies’ ‘In Skokie’ in her collection The Travellers (Text), and Janet Frame’s ‘The Linesmen’ in You are Now Entering the Human Heart (Women’s Press).

There are many excellent fiction and non-fiction opportunities in Australia and beyond, including:

Bryon Bay Flash Fiction Competition

Spineless Wonders joanne burns microlit award

https://brevity.wordpress.com/2018/04/19/electric-lit-seeks-flash/

http://www.fishpublishing.com/competition/flash-fiction-contest/

https://mastersreview.com/flash-fiction-contest/

Happy writing and good luck!

 

Emma Ashmere’s new short story collection DREAMS THEY FORGOT is published by Wakefield Press. Her stories have been widely published including in the AgeGriffith ReviewOverlandReview of Australian Fiction, Sleepers Almanac, Short Australian Stories, #8WordStory, NGVmagazine, and the Commonwealth Writers literary magazine, adda. She was shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Writers Short Story Prize, 2019 Newcastle Short Story Award, 2018 Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize, and the 2001 Age Short Story Competition; and longlisted for the 2020 Big Issue Fiction Edition, and the 2020 Heroines Prize, with another story forthcoming in the NZ/Aust Scorchers climate change anthology. Her critically acclaimed debut novel, THE FLOATING GARDEN was shortlisted for the Small Press Network Book of the Year 2016. Read more of her posts re short and long stories here.

 

 

Small big worlds: Writing microlit

final micro worlds for blog sep 2017

From the inkstone to the smartphone, some writers will always be drawn to brevity. Here’s a quick look at the increasingly popular short form – microlit.

Microlit. Microfiction. Flash fiction. Micro non-fiction. Sudden memoir. What are they? And how do they differ from the good old short story? It must be all about the word count, right?

Yes. And no.

Word count is everything

Microlit is the umbrella term for very short pieces of writing – fiction, prose poems, non-fiction. The term was coined by the Australian publishers Spineless Wonders, although not everyone agrees on the word limit for each sub-species. As a rough guide, microfiction/nonfiction hovers around 200-500 words. Flash fiction/non-fiction is up to 750-1000 words. Short stories range from 1,000 to 10,000 words before straying into novella territory. But one thing is certain. When you’re submitting to a microlit journal or competition – stay under their set word limit.

Word count isn’t everything: control, illusions of space, gaps

In short stories, every word must pull its weight. In microlit – every syllable counts. Control is paramount, as Cassandra Atherton emphasises in her introduction to the microlit anthology, Landmarks. But it’s not the kind of control that stifles or dulls a work. It’s a suppleness, exactitude, and restraint. Paul Hetherington refers to the ‘TARDIS’ qualities of microlit. They may look small and unassuming on the outside, but once inside, they defy the usual conventions of space.

If every syllable counts – so do the gaps. As Spineless Wonders publisher Bronwyn Meehan says, ‘in the best flash fiction, there is no spoon feeding, the … writer trusts the reader to fill the gaps, to sit with unresolved endings and ambiguity.’ Karen Whitelaw puts it this way: ‘Things don’t have to be explained, merely implied. This is the beauty of the form, that behind the words a whole world is peeping through.’

Perhaps that’s why many poets have taken to the form. The boundaries between poetry and microlit seem intriguingly blurred, elastic, porous. Both experiment with rhythm, and seek to distil complexity. Anyone who’s tried their hand at haiku knows the challenge of creating something personal yet universal, regulated but surprising, tiny but expansive.

A thimbleful of history

Like haiku, versions of microlit have been circulating for centuries as fables, pithy sayings, and commentaries. In the 1330s Japanese Buddhist priest Kenkō sat at his inkstone for several days, ‘feeling strangely demented’ as he jotted down ‘at random whatever nonsensical thoughts’ entered his head. His series of witty, precise, sorrowful snippets became Essays in Idleness. But perhaps the most notorious western 20th century microfiction is Ernest Hemingway’s six-word haunter: ‘Baby shoes. For Sale. Never worn’.

Then there’s the Man Booker-winning Lydia Davis who’s been publishing bracing short fictions for decades. Her 700 page Collected Stories reads like one drip-fed mini-drama at a time. Davis says she draws on ‘humour, language, and emotional difficulty’ rather than focusing on what her stories might be ‘about.’

Joy Williams’ new book Ninety-nine stories of God is a dazzling mosaic of funny, harsh, tragic, shards of imagined and recorded lives. Some pieces seem beguilingly smooth. Others lacerate. The famously non-computer-owning Williams typed out a list of 8 Essential Attributes for the aspiring microlit writer, the first being: ‘a clean surface with much disturbance below.’

So how to go about writing it?

Ask the locals

Several successful local microlit writers have shared their thoughts in a series of interviews on the Spineless Wonders blog.

Moya Costello: ‘I draft and re-draft a lot. I also work by imitation (intertextually). I love working with language over narrative/plot.….If you get the right first line, you are often away on a short piece.’

Nick Couldwell: ‘there are no rules. Unlike a novel or traditional short story where there are obvious points that need to be covered like plot, character building and the ending… microfiction has to drag the reader in in only a couple of lines.’

Stevi-Lee Alver: ‘Short sentences must be carefully placed together to convey meaning and paint emotion, like pieces of a puzzle… I often spend a great deal of time exchanging words, with similar meanings, until the words right sound.’

Barnaby Smith: ‘I wrote one in 10 minutes whilst visiting my sister in Stockholm, after being reminded of an experience we shared as children – and very quickly jotting it down – it was a fairly spontaneous, impressionistic thing. I’m not one for ‘stories’, more imagistic fragments. I see them as prose poems more than flash fiction.’

Whatever a writer’s style, technique, ‘rules’, intent, or content – microlit in all its many guises continues to morph, sending out its tendrils, snaking into people’s lives via phones, audio, social media, zines, and film animations.

Read/hear

If you’re interested in writing microlit – read and listen to as much as possible. Australian journals include: Canary Press, Kill Your Darlings, Going Down Swinging, Mascara Review, Pencilled in, Peril, Seizure, Snap Journal, Spineless Wonders, The Lifted Brow, Suburban Review, Voiceworks. Competitions: Avid Reader Miniscule comp, Big Issue comp, joanne burns/Newcastle Writers Festival microlit award, Odyssey House, Outstanding, Peter Cowan Writers Centre comp, Wyndham Writers comp.

Starting (and ending)

South Coast writer Susan McCreery set herself the challenge of creating one piece of microlit a day and ended up with her book, Loopholes. She says of course you must ‘work hard at whittling away unnecessary words, rearranging sentences, chucking out flabby bits….’ But other pressures are at play. ‘There’s not much time to set a scene, or introduce character… Implication is crucial. The title is vital. Endings shouldn’t be too neat.’

‘Start big, end small,’ says David Gaffney in his 6 point how-to list, who also advocates starting ‘in the middle’. As for endings – avoid cheap punchlines. The last line should ‘ring like a bell’.

Twists, changes, shifts

Hillary Simmons suggests successful microlit ‘must combine efficiency of text with immediacy of imagery and neat narrative twists, all in a space small enough for a single reading.’ Emma Marie Jones says, ‘Microfictions are, after all, still fictions: they need, even in their brevity, character, setting, action, conflict, a shift.’ This ‘shift’ or ‘turn’ might be as imperceptible as a shadow creeping across a room, or a horizon-tilting quake. Sue of Whispering Gums took her first dive into reviewing microlit via Angela Meyer’s collection Captives, and noted a pattern: ‘the protagonists confront a challenge, a change, a decision, or they create worlds that suit themselves.’

The aim of the microlit writer then, is to construct convincing, compelling, contained worlds – or shards and slices of micro-worlds.

All writing is rewriting…

Even if your piece arrived fully formed in a burst of clarity (as suggested by the term ‘sudden fiction/memoir’) it still might need reworking. Identify loose threads and pull them out. If the piece still hangs together, you’ve cribbed another micro-inch to stitch in another sentence, idea, nuance, glimpse, or layer. If less really has become less, rethink. Editing microlit is not so much charging in with the pruning shears, but more your dexterous tweezer work.

…with one eye on the wordcount

If a story still can’t manage to limbo in under a 200 word count, perhaps set it aside for a 500-750 word-er. A themed competition/journal might cast a new light, giving sharper focus or stronger direction to an earlier wandery draft.

Microlit becomes microlisten

Before pressing send, consider reading your drafts aloud – a kind of microlisten. This can detect any stumbles, unintended repetitions, slumps, clanging notes, and clumsy rhythms. Better to find those misbeats or hollow notes before your piece wings its way to a publisher – to double-check you’ve paid attention to the small big things. The glimpses. The control. The tension. The rhythm. The precision. The twists. The gaps. The expansiveness. And of course – the word count.

Emma Ashmere’s new short story collection DREAMS THEY FORGOT is published by Wakefield Press. Her stories have been widely published including in the AgeGriffith ReviewOverlandReview of Australian Fiction, Sleepers Almanac, Short Australian Stories, #8WordStory, NGVmagazine, and the Commonwealth Writers literary magazine, adda. She’s been shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Short Story Prize, Newcastle Short Story Award, Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize, and the Age Short Story Competition; and longlisted for the 2020 Big Issue Fiction Edition, and the 2020 Heroines Prize, with another story forthcoming in the NZ/Aust Scorchers climate change anthology. Emma’s ‘What I’m Reading’ article has just been published on Meanjin’s blog. Emma’s critically acclaimed debut novel, THE FLOATING GARDEN was shortlisted for the Small Press Network Book of The Year prize 2016, and she’s a finalist for the Carmel Bird Digital Literary Award 2021. Read more of her posts re short and long stories here.

This article was first published in the Sept/Oct 2017 edition of Byron Writers Festival magazine Northerly.

The Floating Garden shortlisted for the Most Underrated Book Award 2016

Very happy my novel The Floating Garden is on the shortlist for the Small Press Network’s Most Underrated Book Award 2016 – alongside books by Patrick Lenton, Christopher Currie, Marcus Westbury.

It’s such a great award. See Chad Parkhill’s excellent post on the Emma Ashmere The Floating Garden Coverhistory, motives, and criteria for the Award from the Kill Your Darlings blog. (He was one of the judges last year.)

If there’s one thing I’ve learnt over the years whether writing short stories, novels, or non-fiction – it’s to keep reading and writing!

 

 

 

Emma Ashmere’s new short story collection DREAMS THEY FORGOT is published by Wakefield Press. Her stories have been widely published including in the AgeGriffith ReviewOverlandReview of Australian Fiction, Sleepers Almanac, Short Australian Stories, #8WordStory, NGVmagazine, and the Commonwealth Writers literary magazine, adda. She was shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Writers Short Story Prize, 2019 Newcastle Short Story Award, 2018 Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize, and the 2001 Age Short Story Competition; and longlisted for the 2020 Big Issue Fiction Edition, and the 2020 Heroines Prize, with another story forthcoming in the NZ/Aust Scorchers climate change anthology. Her critically acclaimed debut novel, THE FLOATING GARDEN was shortlisted for the Small Press Network MUBA prize 2016. Read more of her posts re short and long stories here.

Writing Outside Youth: Two Uneasy Pieces by Janet Frame and Ali Smith

janet frame PortraitBlogMay2016 121 (2)

A few months ago I was asked to choose a favourite piece of writing that captured ‘the essence of youth’. This got me thinking about being a writer of a Certain Age who occasionally writes younger characters, and the process of drawing on – or strategically remembering and forgetting – the ‘other country’ of my youth. The young characters who grip me in fiction are usually outsiders, so I turned to two of my favourite writers to see how they do it.

Ali Smith’s short story ‘Writ’ dazzles because it’s about being young and old – literally – at the same time. In Janet Frame’s short story ‘My cousins who could eat cooked turnips’, the protagonist is probably younger than ‘youth’, but there’s a link between the two stories – the moment these characters discover they don’t fit in and are forced to make a decision about what that means.

Here are my thoughts on these two uneasy pieces.

‘Writ’ by Ali Smith

There’s a razor sharp exchange about the vantage point of age in Ali Smith’s short story ‘Writ’. A middle-aged woman finds her fourteen-old self scuffing about her book-lined house, lolling in front of the blaring television, perfecting the art of looking needy, bored, and beautiful. There’s so much to say – and not say – to this girl as she smirks, shrugs, advances, and retreats.

For a moment they find a patch of common ground when they talk about the Romantic poet John Keats whose writing she’s/they’ve studied at school. But the chasm soon opens up again. ‘He did die unbelievably young, you know,’ says the woman. The girl fires back, ‘No he didn’t … He was twenty-five or something.’

This is trademark Ali Smith, snapping the elastic of time and place, thrusting a two-way mirror between the other and the self. Just when you think she’s writing about the hopes, anxieties, limitations and freedom of know-it-all youth – you begin to suspect it’s more about the hopes, anxieties, limitations and freedom of know-it-all middle age.

‘Writ’ appears Ali Smith’s 2009 collection The First Person and Other Stories.

For more on Ali Smith’s short stories and her novel Summer see What I’m Reading published in Meanjin.

***

‘My cousins who could eat cooked turnips’ by Janet Frame

When it comes to crystallising the tensions between individuality and conformity, belonging and alienation, loyalty and betrayal, I can’t go past Janet Frame. In her story ‘My cousins who could eat cooked turnips’ a girl learns her place in the world during a visit to her ‘Cultured’ cousins.

The cousins have ‘good trellis work’, a garden full of flowers, and fine lacy clothes. For the girl, it’s an ‘alien world’ where nobody fights, or yells, or sings dirty little rhymes. Her mother seems ‘far away’ and ‘high up’ as she perches at the aunt’s ‘white and ready’ kitchen table. The girl watches how her mother begins to say ‘really isn’t that just so fancy’ about everything she sees.

The girl feels ‘sad and strange’ as she stares at the cooked turnip waiting on their plates. She wants to go home, where she can run wild in the fields and yank turnips out of the ground, and eat them raw under the friendly gaze of ‘an approving cow’. But then she realises. She is the poor cousin. She must do as her mother does – hide her ignorance, oddity, and shame. So she eats her cooked turnip, shows interest in her cousins’ fine lacy clothes, and begins to say ‘just so fancy’ to everything she sees.

‘My cousins who could eat cooked turnips’ appears in Janet Frame’s 1983 collection You Are Now Entering the Human Heart.

***

For more recent short story collections exploring the tricky terrain between various worlds and (not necessarily) fitting in, I heartily recommend Paddy O’Reilly’s Peripheral Vision, Ellen van Neerven’s Heat and Light, and Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Foreign Soil.

***

This article was first published in the Byron Writers Northerly magazine in 2018.

Emma Ashmere was born in Adelaide, South Australia on Kaurna land. Her 2020 short story collection DREAMS THEY FORGOT follows her debut novel THE FLOATING GARDEN, which was shortlisted for the Small Press Network Book of the Year 2016. Her short stories have appeared on many awards list and widely published including in: the Age, Meanjin, Griffith ReviewOverlandReview of Australian FictionSleepers AlmanacEtchingsSpineless Wonders#8WordStoryNGVmagazine, and the Commonwealth Writers literary magazine, adda. In 2021 she was shortlisted for the Carmel Bird Digital Fiction Literary Award and awarded a Varuna Writers Space Online Residency. See more of Emma’s writer interviews and posts on books and writing here.

 

On gardens in literature: Six novels

blog ungardeners picGardens lie at the centre of many compelling novels as places of sanctuary, nourishment, control and ruthlessness. In others, only a tendril might snake its way in – with striking effect. Here are six of my favourite Australian novels about people and plants.

The Ungardeners by Ethel Turner
Ethel Turner (aka Jean Curlewis) is best known for her classic novel Seven Little Australians. Her less well-known work, The Ungardeners, was published in 1925. Part fable and part witty political satire, the original colour plates suggest it might stretch to a children’s book.
Australian poet and gardener Annie travels the globe with her English stockbroker husband, Peter Purcell. After he suffers a nervous breakdown, they settle in Australia for a gentler life. Eventually Annie lures Peter out of the sick bed and into her world: the quiet joy of the garden.
But times are tough and Annie is forced to sell off some of her land. When she returns from a brief trip away, she discovers “the bit of creek fringed by wattles” has become a housing estate clustering around the busy chimney of a jam factory. Soon her flowers begin to disappear. The neighbouring “slum” children are the culprits, and claim they need flowers for a relative’s funeral. Is it manipulation or ingenuity when Annie discovers the children are selling off her flowers at the local cemetery?
The Ungardeners is about many things, including Australia’s place in a fragmented and rapidly changing world, the universal tension between materialism and art, and the idea of development versus nature.

The Secret River by Kate Grenville
Gardens are usually seen as the triumph of order over chaos. In The Secret River, gardening brings chaos and dispossession.
When ex-convict William Thornhill takes up a piece of land on the Hawkesbury, he establishes a house and a garden. Armed with a bag of seeds, precious tools, and labouring help, he is determined to slough off his old life of austerity and petty crime. The aim is to move up in a society where the hierarchies of Britain don’t necessarily apply.
But Thornhill’s seemingly simple act of gardening can never be innocent or neutral in a colonial land. As soon as he plants his plot, something – or somebody – digs it up. His garden becomes a “message”, the equivalent of “hoisting a flag up a pole”, a claim that this “insignificant splinter” of the country is now his.
In The Secret River, Kate Grenville reminds us that Australian history is contested ground. One person’s feast is another person’s famine, depending on which side of the fence you’re on.

The Hanging Garden by Patrick White
The Hanging Garden was published posthumously, accompanied by a level of controversy. This ‘unfinished’ novel centres on fourteen-year-old Eirene Sklavos who arrives in Sydney from Greece with her mother, the flighty Australian-born Geraldine. Eirene’s father, a Greek “patriot”, has been tortured and killed in prison. Once Eirene has been delivered, her mother returns to war-weary Europe.
Eirene ends up creeping about a boarding house on the harbour, inhabited by the migraine-prone but not unkind Mrs Bulpit, and another teenage exile, Gilbert Horsfall. Gil has been evacuated from the London Blitz and suspects his father was pleased to offload him.
Gil sees Eirene as a fascinating “snake”. He’s impressed by her casual snippets of Greek myth, her worldliness, and firsthand experience of communism and volcanos. For Eirene, Gil is a “sinewy white monkey”, who swings between being her friend and a traitor.
In the no man’s land of Mrs Bulpit’s overgrown garden above the cliffs, Gil and Eirene discover the fragile possibility of companionship. But loyalties continue to shift as quickly as the fickle harbour light. Their place in the garden is a shared but precarious, fleeting sanctuary, poised between childhood and adulthood, the world and home.

Heat and Light by Ellen van Neerven
Heat and Light is divided into three parts: Heat, Water and Light. In the Water section, the line between people and plants blurs. Set in the 2020s, the Australian government is evacuating islands in Moreton Bay so Indigenous people can apply to live on a kind of “super” island. However, some of the islands’ mysterious original inhabitants, known as “the plantpeople”, are proving difficult to move.
The protagonist, Kaden, is a young Indigenous botanist. She comes into contact with the plantpeople when she scores a job distributing a scientific formula to them on behalf of the government. Larapinta is the first “specimen” she meets. Green-skinned and of fluid gender, Larapinta “has a face like me and you”. As their relationship develops, Kaden becomes more politicised and suspects her seemingly benevolent role at the company has another agenda.
Heat and Light has been described both as a novel and an anthology, and as a sci-fi/fantasy work. Like the character Larapinta, the book resists neat classification as it pushes back and forth through the porous borders between human and non-human; truth and myth; past, present and future; the other and self.

A Curious Intimacy by Jessica White
A Curious Intimacy is inspired by the nineteenth-century botanist and plant-hunter Georgina Molloy. The protagonist is Ingrid Markham, who rides her horse around Western Australia in pursuit of plants. Back in her hometown of Adelaide, Ingrid has been trained in the rigours of botany by her ageing but liberal-minded father. Unable to make fieldtrips himself, Ingrid sets off with a bruised heart, a passion for discovery, and the latest in collecting kits. With Victorian-era fervour, she is both woman and explorer, finding, cataloguing, and painting her discoveries.
During her expedition, Ingrid meets Ellyn Ives, whose husband has been away for months. The differences between the women are stark. Ingrid flourishes outdoors, and easily fixes a broken water pump. Ellyn rarely steps further than the water-deprived rose beds encircling the dilapidating homestead. Ingrid is enlivened by studying plants she hasn’t seen before. Ellyn is reluctant to leave the unhappy domestic atmosphere where an empty cradle haunts one room. To her the bush looks “all the same”, and is a place where she will become lost. As the two women form a tentative bond, the homestead garden serves as a rickety bridge between their worlds.

The Watch Tower by Elizabeth Harrower
The Watch Tower opens with Laura and Clare Vaizey being abandoned by their mother and cast out of their boarding school. Sydney is in the grip of war. The sisters are adrift until Felix Shaw, a small-time businessman with a purring car and grand ideas offers to take them under his wing.
Laura is persuaded to work at Felix’s box factory. As soon as she settles into the tedium, he abruptly changes his line of trade. Felix keeps both girls off balance, playing them against each other as he zigzags from one shady venture and extreme mental state to another. Any seemingly kind action is attached by a web of strings.
As Felix moves up in the world, he wants the flashy house and garden to match. Once the sisters are installed, Felix marries Laura and Claire begins to refer to her sister as “Hostage Number One”. Felix takes to working outdoors, lunging at the garden like a bayonet-wielding soldier charging across a battlefield.
The garden is only a fleck in the tight weave of this narrative, but it is a potent symbol of Felix’s obsession with appearances. As he tries to assert control over nature, and others, he attempts to maintain his dominance in his relentlessly vigilant corner of the world.

This article was first published in ‘Northerly’ the Byron Writers Festival magazine 2015.

 

Emma Ashmere’s new short story collection DREAMS THEY FORGOT is published by Wakefield Press. Her stories have been widely published including in the AgeGriffith ReviewOverlandReview of Australian Fiction, Sleepers Almanac, Short Australian Stories, #8WordStory, NGVmagazine, and the Commonwealth Writers literary magazine, adda. She was shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Writers Short Story Prize, 2019 Newcastle Short Story Award, 2018 Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize, and the 2001 Age Short Story Competition; and longlisted for the 2020 Big Issue Fiction Edition, and the 2020 Heroines Prize, with another story forthcoming in the NZ/Aust Scorchers climate change anthology. Her critically acclaimed debut novel, THE FLOATING GARDEN was shortlisted for the Small Press Network Book of the Year prize 2016. Read more of her posts re short and long stories here.